Motorsport pedigree opens new doors for innovators

Engine manufacturers with motorsport credentials are making noises both on and off the racing circuit. Stuart Nathan reports.

It is often said said that motorsport is the jewel in the crown of the automotive sector; the motor of innovation and the cradle of top engineers. With the major Formula One (F1) teams all based in the UK, it is of major importance to the economy, employing tens of thousands and attracting investment and prestige. But does motorsport exist in isolation? For one small company in Oxfordshire, a pedigree in motorsport has opened the door to involvement in what could be two of the most striking stories in British engineering in the next decade.

MCT (Menard Competition Technologies) is based in a picturesque part of the Cotswolds, surrounded by villages built of honey-coloured stone and winding country lanes. The neighbourhood belies the gleaming high-tech produced by MCT, however. Specialising in racing engines, the company employs about 40 people, many of them veterans of motorsport teams competing across the whole range of the sport.

But it is away from the racing circuit that MCT is likely to make the biggest noise. A V12 engine developed specifically for a new racing series, SuperLeague Racing, is currently undergoing tests for a very different application — powering the fuel pump for the latest and most ambitious British attempt on the world land-speed record, the Bloodhound SSC. Meanwhile, the company has been developing, and is now gearing up to produce, the engine that will power the revival of one of the UK’s most iconic automotive names, Norton Motorcycles.

Charlie Bamber, commercial director at MCT, and a veteran of the company from its earlier incarnation as Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR), said: ‘We have a design group and manufacturing capability that can go from a blank sheet of paper to a concept for an engine, through detailed design and a finished engine. When we took over this facility in 2003, it was an empty shell; we fitted it out and flushed an engine through the building to prove we could do it. That one was a V8, which we forced through from prototype, and it’s still going today. It’s the engine in the Caparo T1. It has done a number of other jobs, and we are building on it for another project that is running here at the moment.’

The MCT headquarters, Leafield Technical Centre, has had a history as chequered as the flag that ends a race. Originally used by Marconi to develop radio transmission equipment, it was a telecommunications station in the Second World War and was used for governmental and defence broadcasting until the mid-1980s. British Telecom’s apprentice centre for engineer training was based at Leafield in the early 1990s, after which motorsport moved in — the Arrows F1 team had its base there, as did Super Aguri. The company also has an interest in a test site at Kidlington, also in Oxfordshire, where its engine test cells are located, but design, analysis and manufacture all take place at Leafield.

The MCT facility at Leafield is relatively small, but packs a lot in: automated machining equipment allows the company to build engines from scratch and can cope with anything from a one-off prototype to a run of several hundred engines in a year.

Kevin Lee, managing director of MCT, said: ‘Our tooling and equipment is built around a lights-out machining and multi-pallet philosophy that is very similar to what you would find in large-scale production. We don’t build the entire engine ourselves; pretty much nobody does these days. For example, we buy-in castings. To make our own, we would need to have a forge, which would be a massive investment, especially when you can buy-in finished castings from specialists for a few hundred pounds. So we design the casting here, do all the stress analysis, send the design off, and bring the casting back for precision machining.’

Despite the technology, this is a world away from F1. Even the biggest teams are now contracting, but the funding is comparatively plentiful and staffing levels are high — Renault, for example, has about 500 people working on engines. ‘We have to work with an order of magnitude less than that,’ Bamber said.

But this isn’t a weakness. It is the ability of MCT and companies like it to complete demanding projects to tight timescales — born out of the necessity to have a car ready for a race — that makes it attractive for projects across the automotive sector.

The SuperLeague Racing engine is a case in point. ‘It was born from a need to have something unique for a new race series,’ Bamber said. SuperLeague is an odd hybrid — 18 teams using identical cars, each carrying the colours of a football club. Its qualifying system is based around group and knockout phases, much like a football competition, and each competitive round consists of two races: the first with the grid set out conventionally, with the fastest qualifiers at the front; and the second in reverse order, forcing the faster drivers to make their way through traffic to win.

Odd though the rules sound, the technology side is serious and the organisers were keen to stress the newness of the sport. ‘They didn’t want an engine that had been used for anything else; they didn’t want to be part of someone else’s history, no matter how illustrious. But they came to us with a tiny brief. They wanted something that would make a nice noise; it had to weigh 140kg, produce close to 800hp and it had to hit budget. That was it.’

MCT’s proposal for the brief was a 4.2-litre V12 engine, the first racing V12 to be used in motorsport for a decade. Surprisingly compact for such a powerful engine, it is 700mm from end to end, with the cylinders placed close together; it is dwarfed by a V8 Nascar engine. ‘We’re very pleased that we managed such a compact design,’ said Lee, who is also a veteran of Group C and F1 teams dating back to the 1970s.

The MCT team incorporated several design tweaks to coax the maximum power out of the engine, such as a novel way of driving the alternator. ‘In most engines, it’s driven off a front-end alternator drive; that is, off the front of the engine,’ said Bamber. ‘We drive it off the back of the oil pump, which incorporates some extra gears to step up the power.’

The engine does indeed make what motorsport enthusiasts would call a nice noise: a throaty scream overlaying a deep bass rumble, and is truly terrifying at its rev limit of 12,000rev/min. It generates 510Nm of torque, and can propel the SuperLeague car, which was designed by Elan Motorsport Technologies in Atlanta, US, at speeds up to 300km/hr.

But the engine is also a key component in a car that will be capable of much greater speeds: Bloodhound SSC, the supersonic car with designs on the land-speed record. The chief designer on the Bloodhound SSC project, John Piper, is a former MCT employee, and he approached his former colleagues when it became apparent that the car’s hybrid jet-rocket engine would require a power source for the pump, which supplies the rocket stage with its high-test peroxide (HTP) fuel.

‘The auxiliary power unit has to do something that no other APU does,’ Lee said. ‘They needed 650hp to drive the HTP pump, and more than a hundred to drive the car’s hydraulics. It also needed to withstand 3G of deceleration. When you try to scout out what can fulfil those needs, a racing engine is the only thing that fits the bill. Try to get 750hp any other way, and you would end up with a massive diesel marine engine, and that hardly fits the design parameters.’

The duty that the engine has to fulfil and the conditions under which it will operate, are quite different from its SuperLeague incarnation, but it will still burn rubber. Rather than running under variable loads for 45 minutes at a time, with fluctuation revolutions as the driver shifts up and down through the gears and swings the cars into corners, the engine will run at 12,000rev/min full-tilt to pressurise 963kg peroxide from 1.65 bar to 75.8 bar, and squirt it into the rocket’s combustion chamber at 111kg/sec, where it will ignite with the solid fuel, a polybutadiene synthetic rubber. The rocket burn will take about 20 seconds, after which the fuel pump has to shut down rapidly. However, the V12 also runs the hydraulic pump that operates several more vital systems, including the steering, aerodynamic trim panels, and the starter motor for the jet engine.

‘The race engine is designed to accelerate at a little above 1G and decelerates at 4-5G,’ said Lee. ‘In the Bloodhound, the aero-deceleration is around 3G and the acceleration on the rocket phase is significantly higher. But the lubrication is the crucial factor for whether it can cope with the G-forces and that’s symmetrical; it can already cope with 5G deceleration, so it won’t have a problem with the acceleration phase.’

In fact, Bamber said, the engine has needed very little alteration. ‘The throttle is very different; the SuperLeague car has a conventional cable throttle, but Bloodhound has to have a programmed fly-by-wire throttle, otherwise [driver] Andy Green would have to put his foot down to start up the rocket via a 27ft cable. But otherwise, it’s identical to a SuperLeague engine; it’s a very good example of getting the best out of a product.’

But racing and record-breaking are not the only projects on MCT’s slate. Showing how motorsport skills can make their way onto the roads, the company is developing, and planning to manufacture the engines for the resurrected motorbike marque Norton, which was brought back into British hands last year by Stuart Garner, the owner of the Norton racing team. Garner is currently developing a factory to build new Norton bikes at Donnington Park in Leicestershire and the first product out of the gates — expected at the end of this year — will be the Commando 961SE, a 1,000cc, two-cylinder machine based on a bike that had been planned by the company’s previous US owner.

Motorbikes are a new departure for MCT, but according to Bamber, it’s a small step. ‘Motorbike engines are closer to racing engines than a normal road- car engine, in terms of the attention to detail in the mass of the engine and the high specific power output,’ he said. ‘That’s especially true of high-performance motorbikes.’

The engine for the 961SE was already specified when Norton approached MCT. ‘This is a retro motorcycle, so it wasn’t a clean-sheet design. It’s an engine that Norton started in its history but never finished,’ Lee said. ‘So in this case, our job is to apply best practice to the details of each component as it was originally designed; in other words, refine the prototype into something that can be mass produced at a price. Once we’ve done that, we’ll manufacture the engine for Norton; our production facility is well capable of meeting the volumes required.’

One of the issues that a manufacturer such as Norton has to face is the heritage of the brand, which means that many customers will be enthusiasts with a clear idea of what a Norton bike should be and how it should feel. ‘We are lucky in that this first bike was at a stage where there was a working prototype that had already had its ride and drive appraisals; the touchy-feely bit — whether it feels like a Norton — was already there,’ Bamber said. ‘Moving on, we will be looking towards delivering an engine for subsequent bikes that gives the company a state-of-the-art product, incorporating our expertise in looking for the highest-performance, lowest-mass solutions. That’s a platform that can take the brand forward to a new market, who don’t have that knowledge of the brand.’

Performance car and bike manufacturers often work with motorsport companies and, according to Lee and Bamber, it isn’t just because of the cache that comes with a race pedigree. ‘Quite often, the race activity replaces a long phase of development that you would normally find in a production engine programme; you take out a whole stage of prototyping and that can actually prove to be a cost saving,’ Bamber said.

Running an engine at its limits on a track can often point out flaws that normal engine development doesn’t find, he added. ‘With the Jaguar XJ220, for example, I remember taking the vehicle to a test track and in two days, we identified maybe 15 different fault occurrences that had been missed by the development team. A guy who’s trying hard into a corner, going down through the gears like nobody’s business, will often miss the odd gear and tweak the engine revs by a couple of hundred revs per minute; they don’t put that sort of thing into production validation.’

Over and above this is that a motorsport company is focused on speed; not just of the cars they develop, but also of the development itself. ‘We can deliver very fast and we have full control of the supply chain,’ Bamber said. ‘We have the designers, the analysis team and the production, and if somebody wants to push something through, we control everything they need to do that.’

‘It comes back to the racing-team philosophy,’ Lee added. ‘The race is on Sunday and you can’t tell the customer there are going to be delays. You do what it takes to get the job done.’